Plan Commission Punts Floodplain Fracking Proposal To City Council, Where They Might Finally Have To Make a Decision

Categories: City Hall

Like this, but next to a river.
If you could make it through the interminable hours of debate regarding the virtues of video boards; the dire necessity of liquoring up establishments zoned dry; and what sounded like a monolithic Oak Lawn apartment building, something interesting did in fact transpire during a Plan Commission meeting: a zoning request for Dallas' first natural gas wells.

These wouldn't be just any natural gas wells. These would be sunk into the Trinity River's floodplain, technically on parkland. Both of those things are prohibited by current city code. Meanwhile, after more than a year of study, the City Council has yet to promulgate a new drilling ordinance that might or might not bring these wells into compliance.

This put commissioners in a decidedly awkward situation as they listened to Trinity East rep Dallas Cothrum make the case for drilling, while a parade of incredulous citizens, Downwinders at Risk's Jim Schermbeck among them, speak loudly in opposition.

The arguments dragged on for hours but essentially boiled down to this:

Schermbeck: You clearly don't know what the hell you're talking about, so for the love of God, don't approve this SUP request.

Cothrum: Look, everybody, this area we want to drill is a shitty, industrial area that neither you nor anyone you know will ever have any reason to visit.

Plan Commission: (looking at photos of potential drill sites) Yes, as far as potential drill sites go, they don't get shittier or more uninhabited than these.

Yet this spit of land's apparent status as industrial hellhole was not enough to move the commissioners to approve a zoning request for drilling when the city council has yet to resolve how exactly that should be done. Tony Hinojosa, whose represents District 6, which includes the area to be fracked, put a motion on the table to approve. Sally Wolfish seconded. Paul Ridley thought the whole idea was kind of nuts. "I don't think we are in any position to authorize permits at a time when doing so is contrary to city ordinance....This should be addressed by the city council -- elected officials -- not us."

Gloria Tarpley seemed a little pissed about the position into which the commission had been placed. "I am uncomfortable and not happy at all about having to make a decision in the absence of a new ordinance. That is troubling to me."

Hinojosa's motion failed ignominiously. I caught sight of councilman Scott Griggs on my way out. "This was a major victory," he said as he took the stairs out of council chambers. I asked him what questions he would have asked of the would-be frackers. How would he make his decision? He grinned and said, "I'll get my chance in a few weeks."

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Today's CPC votes were illegal. According to state law and city ordinance only a person who voted WITH THE MAJORITY on an issue at the previous voting meeting of the CPC can motion for a vote of reconsideration. The original motion on December 20, was to approve 3 SUPs for Trinity East, and that motion failed on a 7-5 vote. Bruce Bernbaum, who made the motion for reconsideration today, voted FOR approving the SUPs on December 20, and thus was on the losing side. That means he was not legally able to make the motion to reconsider today, but he did it anyway. With one vacancy and three members absent, the motion to reconsider passed 6-5. Those three members either voted with us on December 20, or would have if they had been present, so those three absent members were the difference today.

The second vote, which was to schedule a public hearing for February 7, passed on a unanimous vote, but it was illegal because it was predicated upon the first vote, which was illegal.

This is Dallas city government at its customary finest. The rule of law means nothing to our elected and appointed leaders. It is time to remove our local government and start all over with people who will do the will of citizens rather than out-of-town corporations. But, the bottom line is that we will re-hear the public arguments on February 7, and unless something really odd happens we should prevail in denying the SUPs like we did on December 20, in which case they will still require a 12 vote super majority in the City Council hearing.


What a mess.  This is a result of poor leadership (or perhaps LACK of ANY leadership) from City Council's past, signing on for drilling when they did not have a good grasp for public opinion on the issue.

Litigation is coming.  It's almost inevitable at this point.  All because people got money hungry and signed off on things that could be kicked down the road.  

I think it'd be a miracle if all sides were to come together on this.


As noted by comments from Commissioners Ridley, Anglin and Schwartz, and echoed by several others, the primary point of contention was that drilling in parks and floodplains is clearly a violation of the existing ordinance governing such matters, and that to vote to approve SUPs in contravention of what the law states is legal was something they were uncomfortable and unprepared to do. That was the very point I made in leading off comments from opposition speakers last night.

Regardless of the myriad reasons for disallowing drilling in Dallas based upon the very credible arguments of human health and safety, property values, environmental destruction and other major considerations that SHOULD be the basis for any informed decision, it came down to what is legal and allowed under the current ordinance.

Jim got a little testy last night, and who could blame him. He was absolutely correct - the CPC has NOT studied this issue in depth and is not qualified to vote for allowing it to move forward, especially since they denied XTO permits in 2010, kicking the process back to a City Council that has dragged its feet and done nothing to implement a new, updated gas drilling ordinance that reflects what is currently known about the risks and danagers of urban drilling,
as well as the fact that nobody is making any money off drilling when market prices for natural gas are only about 30% of production costs.

I will admit to being uneasy and apprehensive approaching the vote last night, but good judgment by Commissioners surprised me. Everybody who spoke in opposition to the SUPs did a masterful job of conveying solid reasons to deny the permits. Dallas Cothrum just flat out lied in refuting many of our claims, and tried to play nice and say that we are sincere, though misguided, in our opposition. Jim's point about IR video that clearly shows just how much toxic emissions come from gas infrastructure was compelling evidence that the truth was not being told by Masterplan representative Dallas Cothrum and Trinity East CEO Thomas Blanton.

Last night, we won because enough citizens have made it a point to be informed and voice opposition to natural gas exploration and production in Dallas. Our City Council has been a miserable failure of leadership in standing up for citizens' health and safety, and we can only hope that they start getting the message soon that citizens are sick and tired of being sold out to the highest corporate bidder. The recent Presidential election should have driven that point home. Now, we have a lot more work to do to make sure elected officials who try to sell us out lose their jobs in the May City Council election.


I just want to make it clear that, huh, you are in fact paraphrasing me. I was comparing the CPC's  2 week crash course to the two years the Council has had to study the issue in terms of being prepared to make such important precedents. In the end, I found at least seven of the CPC members to be fully prepared and informed enough to to do the right thing. Thanks for the continuing coverage on this issue by the Observer. You've done yeoman's work.

Poor Hinojosa, with visions of Benjamins dancing in his head, he was just doing what he had been told to do. This entire episode was a loser for Trinity East from the get go due to the Mayor, and City Manager's fumbled  Hail Mary pass of sneaking this right before Christmas. Now, it's time for the Council to do their job of creating a new ordinance contrary to what Mary and Mike want to do, which is delay until they get a friendlier Council after the Spring elections. Total corruption at 1500 Marilla.


@TXsharon Sharon, regardless of how many videos are available one more does not hurt. This one is very definitely a keeper. Hopefully, people will watch this and realize that the way you can tell a gashole is lying is that his lips are moving.


@mcdallas Actually, you have the facts wrong. It was NOT the City Council, but rather City Manager Mary Suhm (and possibly Mayor Tom Leppert) who did that back room deal with XTO and Trinity East. In fact, no drillers even approached Dallas. Mary Suhm sought them out and pressured them to sign leases to drill here hoping to get money to fill budget shortfalls that were largely of her own making due to her ineptitude coupled with an economic downturn nationwide and globally.

Beyond that, the leases she signed in 2007 specifically state that drilling will not be allowed unless and until the lessee obtains an SUP to rezone the land, followed by a drilling permit for each well independently. The leases stipulated that drilling is prohibited by the current ordinance in floodplains and on city-owned park land, and that the city gas drilling ordinance would have to be amended BEFORE an SUP or drilling permit can be granted, which was the technical, legal point on which the CPC vote turned last Thursday night.

There is no way the City of Dallas will be sued if XTO and Trinity East are not allowed to drill because (1) there is no way the plantiffs could prevail in a court of law due to the stipulations in the original lease agreements stating that drilling activities are currently prohibited by ordinance in floodplains and on park land, and (2) XTO and Trinity East cannot afford to sue and lose since that would set a precedent that eliminates their ability to use the threat of lawsuits here, and elsewhere, to get their way in the future. The threat of lawsuits is like nuclear weapons - you can threaten with them, but you really cannot use them.


@darrd2010 Total corruption is absolutely correct. First, the attempted to allow activities that are prohibited by the existing ordinance, then they gave us a Task Farce that was set up to fail by (1) giving it industry insider participation in writing the rules by which industry would be governed, (2) giving it far too little time and zero funding to properly study all issues, (3) failing to give it a mandate for studying ALL the various components (drilling, water/wastewater, compressor stations, gathering stations, transmission pipeline infrastructure, distribution pipeline infrastructure, environmental pollution issues, human health and safety issues, property valuation issues, traffic issues, road/bridge damage remediation issues, etc.), and (4) expecting the whole thing to be done before the EPA study was anywhere near complete and ready for release.

As if all that was not enough, Lois Finkleman was chosen to lead it knowing that she would be favorable to what the mayor and city manager wanted it to do, which was nothing. And, even after the Task Farce did its "work" and submitted its recommendations, here we are nearly a year later and still no new gas drilling ordinance has even been started, much less completed, yet the City of Dallas is trying to move ahead toward allowing drilling at a time when gas is selling for about 30% of production breakeven and nobody is making any money from it!

In addition to corruption, there is also a major dose of municipal incompetence at work here. They don't really care about producing gas as long as the proper palms get greased, and you can rest assured that includes the palms of those who make up the Dallas Citizens Council - the same group that tried to give us the failed Trinity River Corridor Project and the failed Trinity River Toll Road Project.

This is the fault of voters who have failed to know and understand the issues, and who vote on emotion rather than logic and a desire for good government. We can change that in May by electing new leadership that is responsive to the needs of citizens rather than out-of-town corporations.

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